July 14, 2011 - Maine tidal power navigates the regulatory process

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Can tidal power produce electricity for a Maine island?

Sunset over skiffs tied up at Five Islands in Georgetown, Maine.

Developer TideWorks LLC apparently thinks so.  In January 2010, Tideworks filed an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a 5 kilowatt project to be sited in the Sasanoa River, off the east side of the island town of Georgetown near Bath.  This small project was proposed to provide power to a single-family dwelling on 15-acre Bareneck Island.  Tideworks initially applied to FERC for an exemption from licensing.  In its application, Tideworks described the project as including a single vertical shaft turbine-style generator housed on a 10' x 20' steel pontoon float held parallel to the east side of Bareneck Island using 40' steel struts.  The Bareneck Island house is currently tied to the mainland grid by a 7,200 volt submarine cable, stepped down to 220 volts by a transformer on the island.  While Tideworks proposed to keep this underwater cable connection "unless or until the applicant feels the proposed turbine unit will sustain the power needs of the dwelling", its application noted that the power generated by the turbine will be utilized to power the existing residence.

Beyond the technical challenges of building the project, this Maine tidal project must now navigate the regulatory process. Throughout 2010, agencies like NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce filed cautious comments with federal regulator FERC.  After requesting more information from the developer, FERC accepted Tideworks' exemption application for processing and solicited comments.  By September, FERC deemed the application ready for environmental analysis.

As agencies reviewed the project, the U.S. Department of the Interior and Maine Department of Marine Resources used their authority under Section 30(c) of the Federal Power Act to require Tideworks to screen the turbine to prevent fish from being killed.  Specifically, the agencies requested a screen with openings of 1 inch or less, and an approach velocity of two feet per second or less at the screen to allow fish to swim away from the intake.  These measures are used to protect fishery resources at conventional riverine hydropower projects, and the agencies urged the use of this standard given the unknown effects of the proposed hydrokinetic turbine unit on fishery resources.  However, this slow approach velocity was below the minimum operating velocity of the turbine, significantly challenging the project's design.   As Tideworks later described the standoff in a filing to FERC,  "the  project will not be able to generate/operate as a result of these two agency 30(c) conditions (screening/approach velocity)".

Additionally, the developer was encouraged to choose a different regulatory path.  Rather than FERC's traditional licensing process, the project appeared to qualify for a more streamlined licensing process for hydrokinetic pilot projects. By March 2011, Tideworks filed an amendment to its application, dropping the request for an exemption from licensing and instead seeking a hydrokinetic pilot license.  FERC noted that the same environmental protections, including the problematic screening, would likely apply to a hydrokinetic pilot license as well, and asked the developer to work with key agencies to identify any other project restrictions.

Last week, FERC again asked the developer for more information.  In a letter, FERC reminded Tideworks of the commission's hydrokinetic pilot project licensing procedures, including the need to file specific documents including a draft license application and notice of intent.

The hydrokinetic project licensing process is new enough that it is hard to call any one project "typical", but the Tideworks project on the Sasanoa River in Maine illustrates the process of developing an island tidal power resource.

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